Just as my book, Death Becomes Us, began with a rather nervous inquiry into the working life of an embalmer, I've decided to resuscitate my "Death Writer" blog by doing the same. Thankfully, almost ten years after that first interview with George Liese, I'm a lot less nervous. One might say I'm even death positive.
What is death positive you ask? Caitlin Doughty from the Order of the Good Death writes what it is not. You can read the article here.
For me, being death positive is a willingness to engage with the inevitable reality of death. What does that look like? Well, for me personally, it means not avoiding the topic or running away from someone when they are grieving, as this is my natural tendency. I think I'm not alone in that. I'm not an expert, so that's why I try to talk to those that are. With that said...
Today I have Amy Gagne on the blog.
Amy Gagne is a licensed Funeral Director/Embalmer who graduated in 2004 from the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service. She was one of five recipients of the Key Memories Scholarship in 2004 for a paper she wrote on making a service more personal. She has worked both as a funeral director and embalmer, currently focusing in the embalming side. Amy has learned the key to success in this field is finding balance between family and work.
What is your job at the funeral home?
I work for multiple funeral homes as a contract embalmer and most of what I do is self employed. There are about five facilities I currently embalm through.
What does your job entail?
I am on call 24 hours a day, unless I go on vacation or ask for a day off every now and then. The funeral home personnel do the transporting of the deceased to the funeral home. Then they call me when the family has chosen to give permission to embalm. Most of the time I only do embalming, but when asked I also do restorative work, fix people's hair, makeup, dressing, and casketing. Recently I've also been mentoring embalming apprentices who are currently going through the mortuary classes.
What got you interested in doing this job?
The idea of becoming a funeral director/embalmer wasn't ever something that I thought about till I was about 26. One of my work colleague's told me I would make a good funeral director..... My initial response was, "A what?". Although, from there he put me in touch with a funeral director he knew, who spoke with me about the funeral industry. It just so happened, a week later I learned another colleague I worked with did transport for that same funeral home. I was able to get a part time job at that funeral home, and my career took off from there.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Being an embalmer can be emotionally difficult. It's especially so when there is a young person who passes, someone I know, or if they pass from some sort of accident or tragedy. Those situations can be brutal, but it is a reminder that if I feel that strongly, how are the family and friends of this individual handling this tough situation.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
My main job as an embalmer is to create an illusion. I know that sounds strange, but I see the reality of death when the deceased are brought into the prep room. So it is my mission for family and friends to see their loved one a last time without the effects of sickness, injuries, emaciation, jaundice...to the best of my abilities. If through this process I'm able to help a family or friend feel more at peace with a situation, or if by seeing their loved one helped with any part of a stage of grief, their possible solace is my reward.
What do you wish people outside of the funeral industry knew about your job?
We try to always have two people when we pick the deceased up from the home. When the person is at a facility like a nursing home or a hospital, generally only one person goes. That can differ depending on the city and funeral home. Smaller cities will have one person going on calls most of the time. Larger cities have more staff and will usually send out two funeral personnel. When calls come in throughout the night, we are usually called from home to go on the call. The exception again is large cities will usually have 24 hour staff.
Anything unusual happen while on the job?
A situation that can startle you if you're not aware of it is after someone is pronounced dead, they can still have air remaining in the lungs. When we roll them to place a sheet under them or sometimes just hitting a bump going down the road can release the air in the lungs, which hit the vocal chords, and they will make a noise. It happens sometimes.
Are there hazardous conditions working with the deceased?
People who have airborne illnesses like Tuberculosis, flu, mumps, ...can still pass on viruses after they die if they have air in their lungs and it comes out. Granted some viruses last longer than others after someone passes. Tuberculosis is one of the hardier ones. Particles in the air can last up to four hours, but on a surface without direct sunlight it can last weeks to months depending what it's on.
Do friends/and or family members ask you about your job?
I have a mixture of both, but probably more people who are curious than not. Usually the main questions are, how do you do embalming? How does the process work? How do you embalm an autopsy? How long does it take? Then there are others who are interested in how to become a funeral director/embalmer and that varies depending on the state you are in.
Lastly, you mentioned writing about making funerals more personal. What are some things family members can do?
Catering is becoming more common at visitations. A way to bring back memories of the person who passed away is family and friends using that persons recipes to bake cakes, cookies, appetizers, main dishes and bring to the visitation. They could use their place settings or table cloth they have in their home to set up the table.
You could bring a specific Scentsy smell, air fresheners, perfume, or cologne that is their smell, to place around or on them.
Gift bags for the family and friends are a great thing to give out. They could contain recipe cards with some of the best foods they used to make; packets of their favorite coffees, or teas; baked goods from those recipes; their favorite candy; a picture of them; poems, quotes, or music that they like or have written; favorite flower... the list is endless when it comes to what to place in a gift bag. It all depends on the person.
An urn could be set up with a shirt they always wore underneath it on the table, with a picture progression of their life around it, or they could have their favorite banner or quilt along with it.
There could be a bowl/basket with cut paper in it, which could be cut in squares, hearts, circles, any shape that works best, near the register book or casket, for people to write their last message to send with their loved one in the casket. .
Videos using pictures are commonly used at visitations and services. To go a step further, if your able to get video footage of them talking about their life, playing sports, family gatherings, that could always be shown as well.
Pallbearers can wear the normal boutonniere with their loved ones favorite flower, or they can wear one that has other things on it like a tiny rope , little cowboy hat, pink symbol for cancer awareness, military awareness, the many awareness symbols out there or any symbol that represents the person who passed.
The casket can be transported by hearse, or other means. It may have more meaning to be brought to the cemetery by horse and buggy, truck, big rig, escorted by motorcycles, or classic cars.
Capturing the essence of loved ones, sparks the memories of their life story.
Thank you, Amy, for taking the time to answer my questions.
If you would like to share your story on my blog, whether it's about working in a death profession or the death of a loved one, please contact me!
Also, don't be afraid to comment or like these posts. I don't bite.